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Posted Apr 11, 2017, 12:26 pm
In his first visit to the U.S.-Mexico border as the attorney general of the United States, Jeff Sessions outlined the Trump administration's approach to border security in martial terms, calling the border "ground zero in this fight" against criminal gangs and international cartels.
Following a brief tour of the border near Nogales on Tuesday, Sessions held a press conference at the recently-revamped Mariposa Port of Entry in the border city, and announced that the administration would amp up prosecutions and detain "all adults who are apprehended at the border."
"For those that continue to seek improper and illegal entry into this country, be forewarned: This is a new era," Sessions said. "This is the Trump era."
Sessions focused on MS-13, a Los Angeles-based street gang formed by El Salvadorians in the early-1980s that became increasingly powerful in the United States and El Salvador itself.
"Let's stop here for a minute," Sessions said. "When we talk about MS-13 and the cartels what do we mean?" Sessions asked rhetorically. "We mean criminal organizations that turn cities and suburbs into war zones, that rape and kill innocent civilians, and who profit by smuggling poison and other human beings across our borders," Sessions said.
"Depravity and violence are their calling cards, including brutal machete attacks, even beheadings" Sessions said, reading from his prepared remarks.
"It is here, on this sliver of land, where we first take our stand against this filth," said Session's speech as written. When delivering his remarks, he stumbled over that sentence, inserting "on this border" and ending with "stand," leaving off the final phrase.
U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva said that the Republican AG would find in Nogales "a community completely at odds with this administration's depiction of life on our southern border."
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"The question is not whether or not their policies meet the needs of our borderlands, but rather, will they even bother to learn what those needs actually are?," Grijalva said in a news release. "So far, the answer has been a resounding 'no.' Taking time for a photo op at a wall is not the same as taking time to understand how that wall arbitrarily splits the desert landscape, blocking local wildlife from their natural migration patterns, and scarring the ecology of the entire region. Nor is a conversation in a law enforcement facility the same as a conversation with the real men and women who call our borderlands home."
Sessions announced that he was mandating that federal prosecutors seek felony charges for people who have unlawfully returned to United States after they were deported, or if "certain aggravating circumstances are present." Federal prosecutors must also pursue those who "transport or harbor" people who have entered the country without authorization, and "where possible" charge people with document fraud and aggravated identify theft, Sessions said.
Tagging Sessions as a "white supremacist," Grijavla said after the speech that the attorney general was asking prosecutors to "actively seek opportunities to throw the book at immigrants, simply for being immigrants. But Sessions doesn't use that term – his announcement speech is littered with the term 'alien' because it further erodes the humanity of people coming to the United States."
Already Sessions has pushed back against the closure of Bureau of Prison facilities and the Department of Homeland Security has begun taking over some of those facilities for use as immigration detention facilities.
Unauthorized crossers on decline
As part of his announcement, Sessions noted that in January and February, the number of apprehensions by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials have declined precipitously.
"From January to February of this year, illegal crossings dropped by 40 percent, which was unprecedented," Sessions said. In February, apprehensions dropped again, down 72 percent. "That’s the lowest monthly figure for at least 17 years," Sessions said.
"This is no accident. This is what happens when you have a president who understands the threat, who is not afraid to publicly identify the threat and stand up to it, and who makes clear to law enforcement that the leadership of their country finally has their back," Sessions said.
While Sessions credited the drop to the incoming Trump administration, apprehension numbers have been decreasing year over year since 2001. In 2016, CBP reported that apprehensions were below 416,000, a number not seen since 1974.
In the first year of the administration led by President Barack Obama, apprehensions dropped 23 percent from 2008 to 2009 and continued to decline throughout, even as the Obama administration removed or returned more than 2 million people.
Sessions also announced that the administration was hiring 50 more immigration judges, in addition to the 25 judges the administration "surged" to the border in January to quickly pursue removal and deportation proceedings.
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"We can no longer afford to wait 18 to 24 months to get these new judges on the bench, so today, I have implemented a new, streamlined hiring plan," Sessions said. "It requires just as much vetting as before, but reduces the timeline, reflecting the dire need to reduce the backlogs in our immigration courts."
Sessions also announced that all 94 U.S. attorney's offices would make the prosecution of assault against federal officers, including CBP officers and agents, "a top priority."
"If someone dares to assault one of our folks in the line of duty, they will do federal time for it," Sessions said.
It was not clear if federal prosecutors had not pursued these cases in the past.
However, Border Patrol agents and officers with the Office of Field Operations have faced an increase in assaults in the last two years after nearly two years of declining incidents.
From 2012 to 2014, the number of incidents reported by CBP personnel declined nearly 33 percent from 555 to 373 incidents. However, by 2016 that number rapidly increased 56 percent.
From 2016 to 2017, Border Patrol agents faced the biggest change in assaults rising around 143 percent, according to agency statistics.
TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.